An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, October 2014 edition
Imagine you wanted to open a bookshop, but you knew nothing about books. You could research the book market professionally, find out who the best selling authors are, or which genres do well. But maybe you’re lucky enough to know a lot of authors. So instead of extensive research, you ask your ten favourite writers which books they like, because you know they read a lot. And if anyone shows up on more than three separate lists, you could add those people to the list of authors you stock in your new bookshop.
But unless you’re very lucky, your new bookshop isn’t going to do very well. Your circle of friends look like you, and there will be a sameness in their taste in books, so you end up with a narrow selection on the shelves.
PR agency Wilson Hartnell Public Relations (WHPR) tried something similar with Twitter at the start of October. Attempting to measure who had influence on Twitter, they began by assuming political power translated into online influence. They compliled a list of politicians online, and looked at who they followed and were followed by. Any politician followed by lots of other politicians got a high ranking. And anyone followed by lots of politicians got a ranking too. So was born the concept of “power followers”. Having lots of followers helped in the rankings too, but not as much as being followed by “power followers”. Thus, WHPR claimed, they had identified the #Power100 of Irish twitter.
The #Power100 contains some oddities, not least the fact that it actually consists of 200 names. TDs, senators, a smattering of academics, and a sizeable number of political journalists make up the bulk of the list. Politicians follow each other on twitter (or not; more than one commentator enjoyed pointing out Leo Varadkar doesn’t follow Enda Kenny), and they follow political correspondents. And the journalists follow the TDs in turn, for much the same reason they subscribe to press office mailing lists. The list is less about who has influence on Twitter than a reflection of “life inside the bubble”, as political correspondent Harry McGee [#5] described it in an Irish Times podcast.
WHPR fell prey to a classical fallacy, begging the question. In assuming that politicial actors were influential on twitter, they created a list of political actors and their followers. In truth, most politicians avoid Twitter outside election campaigns, and even then, most use it as a broadcast medium, linking to party press releases, or posting bland updates about the enthusiastic reception they get on canvass. The neglect of twitter once the votes are cast is exemplified by former Fine Gael junior minister Dinny McGinley (#198). On the day WHPR released their #Power100 list, his twitter biography read “Looking for a change of Gov!” and his last tweet was in June 2009.
Communications consultant Damien Mulley is scathing about the design of the WHPR list, describing it as “a list on a topic compiled by people that have no insight into said topic and it seems done to to suck up to perceived “influencers” in that area.”
“If the objective was to get a few people to tweet about them because of being on the list, objective achieved. I’m embarrassed for them but I’m sure their Mom thinks they’re cool. I’d love to see the “metrics” that were used to justify this. The Project Maths of political twitter lists.
“Twitter is decentralised. And that causes a lot of problems. Politicians struggle to respond to online movements which don’t conform to their traditional lobbying models. Instead of institutions or pressure groups they can engage with (or ignore and discredit) they find themselves faced with an amorphous many-headed hydra. Journalists do a bit better, but they too find themselves trying to sort the signal from the noise, and its often easier to simply play follow-the-leader and report what politicians (or actors, sports stars, and other celebrities) are saying.”
A second social media professional, who preferred not to be named, was equally sceptical.
“Influence is a very interesting word,” he said. “To my mind someone is actually influential if they have influenced you to actually do something – to click on a link, sign a petition, attend a rally, join a party, cause a revolution – it’s about the action taken because of the message published. Also, the message itself – how many people read, favourite, retweet, click, discuss? Twitter is one of those mediums where there’s more factors than just amount of followers. While the industry has never cracked, or continually obfuscates, the true social capital “klout” of tweeters, we’re still drawn to the idea that, well, if there’s loads of people talking about them, good or bad, they must be “important” or attention worthy. But what do they actually do? What actions do they get people to take? What have they changed or improved? Is it for a cause, rather than applause and are they trying to impress rather than express?”
“We’re also in the wonderful world of clickbait and listicles. Want attention online? Do a top 10, a top 30, a top 100. Or run an award ceremony. They’ll flock.”
“In short, it’s just another list designed to make people click and to get some attention. It hasn’t changed anything. There are people on the list who put a lot of time, energy and good work into what they do. They’re the ones who benefit their audience and hopefully vice versa.”
Perhaps one of the most telling absences from the #Power100 is @WomenOnAirIE. Started in December 2011 by Margaret E Ward, a journalist concerned at the lack of women’s voices in Irish television and radio. The twitter account led to the foundation of a group which created a list of over 1000 women available for inerview on numerous topics, runs seminars and media training events, and lobbies for equal representation. Radio and television may still be male-dominated, but broadcasters have found themselves on the defensive as a result, having to justify their choices. [And on that note, the #Power100 contains only 37 women, reflecting the gender imbalance in Irish public life]. On the day after the #Power100 list was published, @WomenOnAirIE founder Margaret E Ward was nominated to the RTE authority. Neither she nor the group account make the WHPR list.
Launching the #Power100, WHPR managing director Brian Bell said the company planned to make the list a “calendar event”, and looked forward to providing an updated analysis in early 2015. No doubt social media consultants will spent the intervening months busily trying to reverse engineer the special sauce used in compiling the list in order to flatter their clients. In doing so, they could do worse than to begin with @OireachtasRX [#71].
Oireachtas Retort is one of only two anonymous accounts in the #Power100 list, along with @NAMAwinelake. A self-described “insolvent, cribber and moaner”, the account promises “Dail updates”.
Oireachtas Retort believes the account made the grade because of the word “Dail” in the twitter profile. As politicians follow other politicians, Twitter’s algorithms will suggest more of the same. Words like “Dail” and “Oireachtas”, once identified as a common factor, will be used to suggest new followers.
“I have Dáil in my bio, which automatically puts me in tags search and am approaching 9000 followers. But other that, who knows?” Oireachtas Retort said.
But despite making the grade, Oireachtas Retort was sceptical about the list, observing that it was “a pity the political science people were more interested in their own ranking than examples of dodgy mythology and circles of influence. The omission of people like Collette Browne should be noted too.”
In short, the #Power 100 may be a good starting point for mapping influence within the “Leinster House bubble”, but it says very little about the voices that can coalesce online around a single issue, bringing it to the political forefront, from the so-called “Ireland’s SOPA” campaign which led to the unprecedented sight of a Dáil debate on a statutory instrument, to the spontaneous marches and protests organised in the hours and days after the story of Savita Halappanavar first broke.
Traditional media works by broadcasting the voices of the powerful. Whether on air or in print, politicians have honed the skills to get their point of view across, from the careful soundbite to the off the record briefing by “sources close to the minister”. But social media doesn’t broadcast, it amplifies. Conversations grow over time, powered by hashtags and retweets, and ideas spread. Power doesn’t mean as much when any idea can spread through the crowd, gaining support and promoting further debates, without any oversight or control from above. That idea will take some getting used to for political parties, PR firms and journalists alike.